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Dam the Neighbors
Ethiopia: East Africa's Success Story?

On the sandy floor of the Ethiopia’s Guba valley, a few miles from its border with Sudan, dreams are coming true. In this sparsely-populated area, an Italian firm backed by the Ethiopian government is building the Grand Renaissance Dam. It will be the largest hydropower project on the African continent.

The dam is already 25 percent constructed. Addis Ababa says it will begin producing its first 750 megawatts of power this year. The project is expected to cost just under $4 billion, and Salini Impregilo, the Italian firm building the structure, told Reuters that it has received every payment on time so far.

Only 30 years ago, Ethiopia suffered a famine that killed nearly half a million people. Today, it is finally beginning to prosper, as this ambitious project attests. The economy’s GDP growth rate has averaged close to 9 percent over the past 10 years, frequently topping 10 percent. Ethiopia has also seen a marked improvement in its basic services; in 1995, just 9 percent of the population had access to clean water, but by 2012, that number had risen to 42 percent. Over that same period the national poverty rate has been reduced by half.

The Grand Renaissance Dam will be the jewel in Ethiopia’s crown, Reuters reports:

The electricity it will generate – enough to power a giant rich-world city like New York – can be exported across a power-hungry region. […]

And the dam is just the start for Ethiopia’s ambition of becoming a regional power hub. A government plan seen by Reuters would see Africa’s second most populous nation target installed capacity of 37,000 MW within 25 years – far more than the World Bank’s estimate of just 28,000 MW for the entire current output of sub-Saharan Africa excluding South Africa.

Many of Ethiopia’s neighbors are signing deals to import some of that energy. Egypt, however, is far from pleased. The Grand Renaissance Dam will block the Blue Nile, an important upstream tributary of the Nile river. For decades Cairo has bullied and cajoled the countries upstream into leaving the Nile’s tributaries unimpeded. But Egypt’s influence over these nations is waning. Cairo had attempted to buy a piece of Ethiopia’s dam, but Addis Ababa refused, saying it would prefer to pay for the project by itself and keep Egypt’s hands off it. Upon learning that Ethiopia would go ahead with construction, at least one Egyptian official threatened a military response. “We will finish it whether they like it or not,” an Ethiopian official told Reuters defiantly.

Though the dam will be a great achievement and a boon for the country’s economy, Ethiopia will still have to work hard to combat poverty and corruption. Freedom House and the Committee to Protect Journalists both gave the country dismal ratings on freedom of the press and society. As Richard Dowden, the director of the Royal African Society, put it, “[M]ake no mistake, parliamentary democracy as we in the West understand it, has no role in today’s Ethiopia. Out of the 547 elected members of the country’s lower chamber only one is from an opposition party. I met him. Girma Seifu Maru is a nice man but a lonely one. As Meles Zenawi said: ‘There is no connection between democracy and development.'”

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